When finishing second in the nation the previous season is considered a disappointment, it’s clear the Minnesota wrestling program has set high expectations for itself.
The 2006 crop of Gophers wrestlers will begin the quest to claim their first national title since winning back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002 this weekend at the 37th Bison Open in Fargo, N.D.
Minnesota has produced 142 individual champions in the 36-year history of the event, taking home nine of 10 titles last year.
Wrestling Hall of Fame coach J Robinson, in his 20th season with the Gophers, said that the team is ready for the challenge to regain the top spot in the nation.
“Obviously, we didn’t get where we wanted to be last year,” he said. “We were ranked number one and didn’t finish there and that’s something we want to change.”
Experts across the nation have Minnesota pegged as the favorite to win its third national title in seven years, making the Gophers the unanimous No. 1 pick in four separate national preseason polls.
And it’s not hard to see why. Minnesota returns nine starters and seven NCAA qualifiers from last year’s team, which was ranked No. 1 in the country before falling to Oklahoma State in the 2006 NCAA Championships.
Two-time NCAA qualifier and defending Big Ten champion, junior C.P. Schlatter (157), said the team relishes the top ranking and is ready to defend it.
“We should of had it last year,” he said. “And we’re up for the challenge this year.”
This year’s team is led by returning national champions and All-Americans senior Cole Konrad (heavyweight), who will be out this weekend due to injury, and sophomore Dustin Schlatter (149).
Minnesota also returns All-Americans junior Mack Reiter (133), who is also out for the weekend due to injury, and junior Roger Kish (184), as well as two-time NCAA qualifier junior Gabe Dretsch (174), and junior Manuel Rivera (141), who made his first NCAA appearance last season.
And that experience is something that Minnesota will turn to this season.
Kish, in his third year with the program, said he recognizes the experience and the advantage it can give the team.
“We got all the members back who have been in the big-time matches,” he said. “Our experience is going to make us a real tough team to face.”
Minnesota has picked up 77 Big Ten individual titles in its history, tying a school record with five last year as the Gophers also took home the team title.
Dustin Schlatter, one of the five champions, said last year has only motivated the team to be even stronger this season.
“We had high expectations last year, but I think they’re even higher this year,” he said. “Everyone is hungry for the title and we’ve been working real hard.”
Robinson said the last team to pick up five Big Ten individual titles was the 2002 national championship team.
Minnesota brings back all five individual champions from last year’s team along with others who are expected to strongly contend for more.
Robinson said that not only does this year’s team have the potential to be the best in the country, but could perhaps be the best that Minnesota has ever had.
“I think it’s important for these guys to know how good they are and how good they can be,” he said. “They’re ranked No. 1, but they can even be better. The potential is here.”